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When Will You Own A Tesla?

Written by William Cowie - 14 Comments

What do you think about electric cars? That’s a question which evokes a surprisingly strong reaction. Few people, it seems, are indifferent to the topic of changing what we drive. Some think electric cars will help save the planet; others think they’re a do-gooder’s overpriced and overrated flavor of the month.

History

The automobile, one of the icons of the Industrial Revolution, has been with us for more than a hundred years. During that time, it has evolved to an astounding degree of complexity that surprises many. For instance, many family SUVs today perform better than the exotic Ferraris and Porsches of just a few decades ago, with improved safety, gas mileage and reliability (not to mention the on-board entertainment systems, air conditioning and power steering, brakes, and windows).

Ironically, though, electric cars were more popular than the gas-powered internal-combustion-engined cars we take for granted today. John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford used their considerable wealth and influence to steer development in directions which made them the most money, and when gas stations outnumbered electric charging stations, the fate of the electric car was sealed.

In the previous century, all the major manufacturers dabbled with electric cars, especially after the first oil crisis of 1973, which saw dramatic hikes in the price of oil.

Technology

An electric motor has several significant performance advantages over an internal combustion engine. Electric motors last about ten times as long as an internal combustion engine, and weigh much, much less.

But where electric cars really outshine conventional automobiles is in their ability to accelerate. If you have ever tried to pull away from a stop light in your car, you might have noticed your engine struggling at low revolutions per minute (RPM), building up “steam” as the revs climb.

An electric motor, by contrast, has full power right from the start. That means an electric car doesn’t need a four- or five-speed transmission to keep the engine operating in its sweet spot. In fact, it doesn’t need any transmission at all (other than a switch between forward and reverse).

One of the most vivid examples of the electric car’s power advantage over conventional engines is a 1972 Datsun, which accelerates from 0-60 in under 2 seconds, performance generally reserved for exotic super cars costing well over a quarter of a million dollars.

Given the immense power advantages of an electric motor versus an internal combustion engine, one might wonder why high-performance cars haven’t all switched to electric motors.

So, Where Are All the Electric Cars?

What’s keeping electric cars from taking over and saving our planet? In a word, storage. Your conventional automobile stores its energy in a gas tank, while an electric car requires its batteries to store energy. That leads to the vast differences between the two types of vehicles:

  • You refill your standard car’s energy needs for the next 300 miles in a few minutes, but that kind of refill for an electric car can take all night.
  • There are hundreds of refilling stations for internal combustion engines, but far, far fewer for electric cars.
  • Then there’s also the vast difference in the weight needed to carry enough energy for a 300 mile range — so much so that most electric cars have to make do with shorter ranges.
  • Batteries and gas tanks fulfill the same function — storing energy for your next few trips, but a pack of batteries costs hundreds of times more than a single gas tank which holds the same amount of energy.

It’s that weight factor that led most manufacturers to focus on low-end models for their electric cars. Chevy’s Volt and Nissan’s Leaf are both compacts, as was the GM EV-1 of the 1990s.

gm ev-1 electric cars

The EV-1 met a controversial end: General Motors scrapped them all, despite the fact that many owners were willing to buy them at inflated prices and indemnify the auto giant from all liability.

In the years following the demise of the GM EV-1 and Honda EV Plus, green motoring shifted from all-electric vehicles to hybrids, which are powered by both electric and internal combustion engines.

Along Came Tesla

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, grasped that electric motors have a much larger advantage over internal combustion engines when it comes to higher-end applications. It appears he thought a high-end electric car can compete much more effectively against its peers than an economy electric. So he first launched a sports car, and then he aimed straight at the heart of the high-end car market — the Mercedes-Benz S class.

The numbers seem to vindicate Mr. Musk. His Tesla S has outsold the Mercedes S-class in 2013 by more than 30 percent:

electric car sales 2013

How Does This Affect You?

At this point, you might say, “Well, that’s all nice and dandy if you can afford cars in that price bracket. I’m not in it, so why does this interest me at all?”

Here are a few reasons:

1. Mr. Musk is planning to move down-market as Tesla develops new models. His commitment is to capitalize more fully on the inherent advantages of electric cars with each successive model. That means the odds are good that Tesla’s lower-end models will outsell their peers making them the new standard.

2. Along the way, electric recharging stations will become more plentiful and the range from battery packs will grow. The world as we know it may well be in for a change.

3. The pressure on the electricity generation industry and the grid will grow. That growing stress may well result in power outages becoming more common … or further the growth of alternative energy sources.

4. We may be witnessing the birth of a new normal, a bit like the Model T created new ways of living, many of which we still take for granted. Because Tesla has opened their inventory of patents for anyone to use, it is entirely possible that the market may become flooded with electric cars which deliver on the full promise of the inherent technology — so it’s not Tesla the company that might change our lives, but the industry it helps to foster and grow.

Changes to the way we live never happen smoothly or without controversy and bumps in the road — and this change likely won’t be an exception to the rule either. However, the sales success of the Tesla S is opening more peoples’ eyes to the inherent superiority of the electric car. Forget the environment; we’re just talking as a car. As technology addresses the battery problem, electric cars will become more and more integrated into our lifestyles.

When that happens, the car you want to buy in the future will move into the sights of those designing electric cars. The question is: When they do that, will you be open to something that different?

Published on August 6th, 2014
Modified on August 7th, 2014 - 14 Comments
Filed under: Automotive

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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14 Responses to “When Will You Own A Tesla?”

  1. 1
    Big-D Says:

    I am 40 and single, and own 1 vehicle. When an electric car can everything my existing car can do, I will replace it. I currently drive a 2007 Nissan Murano. It must do the following:
    1) Have comfortable room for 4 (and their luggage) with seating for 5 in a pinch.
    2) Must have 8+ inches of ground clearance to get to my second home.
    3) Must have 4wd (or some form of select-able AWD, none of that intelligent or full time 4wd)
    4) Must have a high ride height. I get night blindness when driving cars due to bright headlights, so I have to have a taller ride.
    5) Must be able to be driven 650 miles in one day. I stop usually once on that trip for a meal, bathroom, and gas. The same must apply to any electric car (trip lasts under 30 minutes).
    6) Must cost around the same $30k of my existing car (if it cost more, the math must work out that the charging makes the cost less than a car plus gas over the first 100k miles).
    7) Must have the right features. For me it is no leather, decent stereo w/ CD player, low center console (or none) since I am 6′6″ and cannot drive any car with a tall center console. Anything else that is added should not hinder the price in terms of extra electronics (collision warning sensors, OnStar, etc. … I don’t want any of them and will find out how to disconnect them).

    That is my basic list. Since not everyone is “rich” enough to get past #6 above, they have to drive what they can afford. If you can afford the car as your only car, then great, but it must meet the qualifications listed above (at least for me). If you can afford 2 cars (one as a daily driver, and the other for long distance duty) then fine, saving money is not the reason you are buying an electric car (more of a political statement).

    I have actually done research on vehicles and if I could buy the parts from a volt or something like it (Tesla) then I would love to actually try to make my own vehicle which will meet these requirements. I love to tinker and had many good ideas.
    The problem with electric cars is simple. Cars have evolved over time (125 years) to become many things to many people due to capabilities present in each different model. Replacing all of those cars, with electric guts, is expensive, and takes a long time to work out the R&D to make up for 125 years of evolution.

  2. 2
    Rick Franklin Says:

    I won’t every buy an electrical car because of its negative environmental impact. Electric cars don’t pollute, but the power plants that generate the electricity that charge their batteries do pollute. Since something like 80% of the U.S. electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants, I fear that electric vehicles are worse for the environment than normal gas burning cars. I would MUCH rather see people purchase HYBRIDS that use gasoline for some power and then self-generate and self-charge their electric batteries while performing normal car functions. To date, I believe, HYBRIDS are your best environmental alternative. Please don’t buy electric cars.

  3. 3
    Big-D Says:

    @Rick Franklin – under 40% of US power is generated by coal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:U.S._2013_Electricity_Generation_By_Type_crop.png

    I honestly think things like the Chevy Volt are great cars if they would put it on a decent car and frame. Big enough battery to go a while, but an on-board gas power plant for long distance. If that car were in a Chevy Equinox (and bigger battery life and better electric motor), it would be mine in a heartbeat.

  4. 4
    Howard Johnson Says:

    Most electric and PHEV car buyers have solar panels on their roofs. Hence, no strain on the utility monopoly in any state. Thanks for the coal generation clarification, Big-D ! ! This increasing purchase trend of electric cars and rooftop solar will progress like the cell phone and digital camera acceptance, slowly but surely. These latter items also started out as expensive, “toys” of the rich, as did computers. Eventually, the prices will decrease and the public will benefit with a pollution reduction of smog in all cities. A win-win ! !

  5. 5
    Josh Says:

    @Big-D : Have you looked at Tesla’s Model X? Slated to come out 2015, it meets many of your criteria (given you live near a recharge station of some kind)… Roomy as hell, can seat 7 adults. Looks like it was made for taller people and rides higher than the Model S… If not what you want now, I think electric cars will be fitting most peoples lifestyles within the decade …

  6. 6
    Tim Russell Says:

    I’d love a model S, the base with it’s ~200 mile range would be fine. I think if the price got down to the $40K mark I’d consider it. The Leaf has enough range for my commute on paper but I know someone who has one and winter range can be as low as 65 miles. Add in a 50 mile round trip and a snowstorm and I don’t get home (running heater and lights in the winter for 2-3 hours would sap the range). I’d rather have something that looks a bit sexier anyway the model S is down right sexy. Some like the Prius and Leaf for their different looks but I like a somewhat more conventional look. With the release of the patents it is likely more E-vehicles will be released soon.

  7. 7
    Rick Franklin Says:

    @Big-D: Thanks! I thought it was 80%! Glad to hear it’s smaller than that. It is 80% in my area, I guess I extrapolated! So, the decision then becomes regional. If you live in an area that doesn’t get most of its electricity from coal, electric vehicles are environmentally friendly! I’d buy one in a heartbeat if that were the case in this area! Especially, a Tesla (if I could afford it!) Thanks for the added information!

    Rick

  8. 8
    Big-D Says:

    @Howard Johnson – Yes, cell phone acceptance is actually a great way to think of electric cars. The infrastructure needs to be there (chargers = cell towers) and costs (first phones were thousands, now you can get one for under a hundred).

    @Josh – Yes I have, but have a hard time spending 100k on a car. Tesla admits that it will be more expensive than the S, and I really don’t like some of the features I cannot turn off. The whole cell connection, things like that. I would love a car that is simple (like an Equinox), with very little frills. I am actually looking at the Nissan Xterra, if they put the 2.8 diesel that they are talking about putting in there. 35-40 MPG, Nice car, No frills. Perfect.

  9. 9
    Big-D Says:

    @Rick Franklin – I used to work in the power industry, I know a lot of what goes on. It does not just depend on a power company being “greedy” for cheap power, they have to deal with local and federal government bodies which their only job is make sure you charge the cheapest price for power. Thus changing a rate case w/ a state takes almost a decade (to change what they charge you) so they can charge more, so they can start saving money to build a new $500 million plant, which had to meet federal specifications.

    On top of all that, you have the natural ebb and flow of how power works, and how to get “fast” and “cheap” power for when they need it. It is not constant, and changes every millisecond, thus the planning is crazy. The best and cheapest power out there is probably Hydro (but we have not build a plant since the 70’s due to EPA rules) and Nuclear (same reason). However at the end of the day, coal is cheapest to run, and cheapest to build. Until that changes, we are still going to be where we are today.

  10. 10
    Kathleen Says:

    Oh, goodness yes.

    I hope, by the time I can afford one, that I will have switched to solar power, too.

    In the meantime, I have an electric bicycle which I love.

  11. 11
    Shawn Says:

    @Rick Franklin

    No one will disagree that coal plants are large emitters CO2 and other pollutants, but plants like that make far less emissions than the total of the cars that it could power. It’s an economy of scale issue. If all cars were powered by electricity generated by coal, the CO2 emissions would be far less than what we have now. I can’t remember the specific numbers, but if I find the research paper I’ll post a link.

  12. 12
    Martin Winlow Says:

    @ Big-D – So what it appears to me that your are saying is, that you don’t care a hoot about the environment, nor anyone else living in your neighborhood or place of work, you don’t care that your country is spending billions of dollars annually securing all the foreign oil you (and your equally un-enlightend fellow gas-guzzling motorists) are consuming rather than spend it all on local jobs, not to mention all the human lives lost or otherwise destroyed in the process, just so you can continue to ride around in great comfort and not have to go to the wildly onerous extent of getting out of said gas-guzzler to charge it once every 250 miles or so?

    What, prey, are you going to do when you can no longer afford to pay for the fuel your car uses? Walk? Because that day is coming, probably soon and certainly in your driving life-time.

    @Rick Franklin “I fear that electric vehicles are worse for the environment than normal gas burning cars.” So all the anti-EV loons would have us believe. Unfortunately, the likes of NADA (N American Dealers Association who are trying to ban Tesla from selling their far superior cars directly to the customer) and car dealers/makers in general (who stand to lose all their profits because EVs don’t require anywhere near as much servicing as ICEVs) will make you believe that EVs are never going to take off and that you should stick to the same old same old.

    Bottom line: you can stick a 4 kW PV array on your roof and, over the lifetime of the array, it will generate more electricity than the average householder and EV user will consume AND cost a lot less than buying it off the grid. And it won’t cause any pollution in the process. Try doing that with fossil fuel. MW

  13. 13
    tina Says:

    Well, my Tesla will be the light duty, small truck. Why? because a tesla S won’t fit in my driveway and I haul small farm animals around daily. I am already calling it the “Y” & just waiting for Musk to catch up!

  14. 14
    Big-D Says:

    @Martin Winlow – I did not say any of what you inferred. Political ideologies have nothing to do with what my comments were intended to infer. I have thought a lot about this over the years, and what I want in a car. We as a country are not there yet to have an electric car infrastructure. That is if you live outside California (which, you know 90% of Americans do). There are Zero .. count that .. Zero Tesla superchargers on the way to my second home. So there goes your 250 miles to recharge rant. Sitting and waiting 16 hours to recharge 3 times on a weekend trip (650 miles) does not let me work all that much due to having to camp 3 days there and 3 days back. Plus I had a list of requirements (in my first post) which are pretty basic to meet. If I am riding around for 250 miles as you state it had better be pretty comfortable. If they had an infrastructure in place where I could charge my car every 250 miles (full) in under 30 minutes, then heck yes I would do it. However – again – they don’t where I live.

    As for your comment about a 4 kW PV array … I don’t know where you are living but that won’t power my house when the A/C is running (pulling ~2kW) as well as a fridge, a computer, and what ever else is running in the house during the evening (oh yeah – lights). I have done extensive research on my house and monitor every circuit on my breaker panel. I know the exact cost of PV, and what it would take to put into my house, and researched it many times over the years. Again – I used to work in the power industry, and know it quite well.

    Since you are in such a generous mood to provide obviously over-critical advice, can you give me $35k so I can purchase a better commuter car like a Chevy Volt? Better yet how about another $7k for plates, taxes and insurance for 3 years in my state? No? Then until you can live my life, walk in my shoes, fit in my budget, then please get off your high horse on the moral high ground and engage in a civil conversation.

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